Right in the heart of the mountainous city of La Paz in western Bolivia, 11,500 feet up in the Andes, lies San Pedro Prison, one of the most notorious and bizarre institutions of its kind in the world. San Pedro might be many things, but it’s certainly not your average prison. Unlike other prisons from around the world, what makes San Pedro unique is the fact that it is quite literally a society within itself and what’s more intriguing is that it is run by its inmates. Originally designed for just 600, it now houses nearly 3,000 inmates, most of whom are convicted of drug-related crimes.
It is most likely that this bizarre place wouldn’t have reached the international fame it enjoys today if it wasn’t for a bestselling novel entitled, Marching Powder: A True Story of Friendship, Cocaine, and South America’s Strangest Jail.
The novel, written by Australian journalist Rusty Young, tells the story of Thomas McFadden, a former inmate, who had been arrested at La Paz airport for smuggling five kilos of cocaine and soon found himself jailed in one of the most notorious penitentiaries in the world – Cárcel de San Pedro. Young’s novel gives us a fascinating insight into the infamous world of San Pedro Prison through the eyes of former inmate Thomas McFadden.
It all began in 1996 when McFadden arrived at San Pedro Prison for the first time. He was shocked to find out that he had to pay around $5 for his imprisonment and additional $5,400 for his own cell. “It was like not a prison it was like a village,” he told The Sun Online. “I saw children, shops, and restaurants. I went crazy. I thought I was losing my mind,” he added.
McFadden had to adapt to this rather strange world of Cárcel de San Pedro where, as he told The Sun Online, cocaine is cheaper than a plate of food. It didn’t take him long to realize how things functioned within the walls of the prison and soon he became part of San Pedro’s society and started making a living as a tour guide of the prison, offering tours of the prison to backpackers.
It was on one of his many tours that he would meet Australian journalist Rusty Young, with whom he became friends and told him all about his experiences in San Pedro. They even became roommates after Young managed to bribe one of the prison’s guards who allowed him to live inside the prison for the next three months. While there, Young witnessed the bizarreness of the place with his own eyes and was more than inspired to write his bestselling novel.
San Pedro Prison is guarded only from the outside. Guards’ only assignment is to make sure that no one escapes, which means that the prisoners are for the most part left to look after themselves. As mentioned, prisoners pay an entrance fee and then they must buy their cells either from the “prison mayor” or through one of the prison’s “freelance real-estate agents” when they enter the prison.
The prisoners established a functioning society within the walls of the prison. They elect eight officials, one for each section of the prison. Each of these sections is represented by a small council that makes decisions. Many of the prisoners in San Pedro Prison live together with their wives and children in the prison. There are about 200 children who live with their fathers in this place. “You can live with your wife, kids, and pets, you don’t have to wear uniform and you don’t know when you’ll be leaving,” McFadden told The Sun Online.
The children inside the prison are under constant danger, but as reported by the Daily Mail, rapists and child molesters are treated with a brutal zero-tolerance policy by the inmates and they usually end up drowned in the small swimming pool inside San Pedro Prison.
The living conditions in the prison vary in different sections. For example, in the poorer sections of San Pedro Prison, the conditions are more than terrible with several inmates often living in single-room cells.
On the other hand, the luxurious La Posta sector of the prison is the section where politicians and drug lords live in luxury cells, which include private bathrooms, jacuzzi, kitchen, and cable television. Living in La Posta costs between $1,000 and $1,500 and not many people can afford to live there.
San Pedro operates its own economy with inmates working as shopkeepers, food vendors, pastors, barbers, carpenters, shoe shiners and some of them even running cocaine laboratories. It is said that the purest cocaine in the country is made and sold inside the prison.
Many of the prisoners earn money either through alcohol trade or gambling. La Paz Life reports that “up to US$20,000 in bets are placed per year on inter-section football matches.” Since the 1990s, San Pedro became a major tourist attraction in the country and has been visited illegaly by thousands of tourists from all over the world.
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Although the Bolivian government stated on more than one occasion that plans to close the prison down, it remains fully operational. However, since 2009, large-scale tours are officially off limits and backpackers’ remaining options are La Paz walking tours, which offer the surroundings of the prison and of course, Marching Powder’s story.
As for Thomas McFadden, he had been released from the prison back in 2000 and now works as a chicken farmer in Tanzania. As part of a documentary, he went back to San Pedro with his friend Rusty Young and upon returning, he told The Sun Online that besides the fact that it’s been 20 years since the prison became a tourist attraction, only little has changed within its walls.